When Jack and Meg White’s fourth album as the White Stripes, Elephant, was released on April 1, 2003, the duo seemed poised for stardom far beyond club gigs and college, radio based on early reviews alone (advances were delivered to press on vinyl). But it’s a wonder to consider how its opening track, “Seven Nation Army,” took on a life of its own as a stadium anthem in the ensuing years – so much so that it has somewhat unfairly overshadowed Elephant in the process.
Indeed, whether it’s at WrestleMania or a fourth-grade basketball game, there’s a very high likelihood that you’ll hear “Seven Nation Army” blasting through the PA system at some critical point. The song’s in-concert power was apparent to observers early on, including Third Man Records co-owner/White Stripes archivist Ben Blackwell, whose band the Dirtbombs performed alongside the Stripes at Holland’s Pinkpop Festival in 2004.
“They came back out, and people were waiting for an encore and it was the first time I heard the chant that is inescapable these days,” he told SPIN in 2020 of the familiar seven-note opening riff. “I want to give credit to the co-drummer in the Dirtbombs, Pat Pantano — we were watching the show together side stage. He’s the one that pointed it out to me. He’s like, ‘They’re just chanting a riff that’s not even lyrics. Wow, that is pretty weird to hear a crowd chant a riff. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before.’”
Elephant‘s 20th anniversary gives us a further chance to reflect on the bluesiest, ballsiest, and most beautiful album in the White Stripes catalog, in light of the, um, elephant in the room. Yes, “Seven Nation Army” is an iconic moment, but Elephant also unleashed sonic ferocities like “Black Math” and “Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine,” and foot-stomping movers including “The Hardest Button to Button” and “Ball and Biscuit.” It’s tempered by sweet and tender detours like the Meg White-led “In The Cold, Cold Night” and “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket,” and even a rocked-up version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s lush “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself.”
“This album is dedicated to, and is for and about, the death of the sweetheart,” White wrote in his liner notes to the album. “In a social plane, impossible to exist, and in memories, past defeating present. We mourn the sweetheart’s loss in a disgusting world of opportunistic lottery ticket holders caring about nothing that is long term, only the cheap thrill, the kick, the for the moment pleasure, the easy way out, the bragging rights and trophy holding.”
Twenty years later, the thrills are cheaper and the attention spans sure are shorter, but Jack’s electric spiritualism and Meg’s primal rhythms remain as powerful a duality in 2023 as they were in 2003.
From veterans like Nancy Wilson of Heart, Mike Peters of the Alarm, and Gina Schock of the Go-Go’s to such buzzy current acts as the Linda Lindas, Kiwi Jr., Big Joanie, and Blues Lawyer, SPIN spoke with a diverse swath of today’s music community to delve into the enduring importance of Elephant, two decades on.
“I specifically remember loving Elephant when it came out. It sat high up in one of those ‘Mezzanine/OK Computer’ spaces for me. That was a lot of partying ago, and now as an old burnout, it’s hard for me to write a genuine breakdown of why it was such a good album. I can confidently tell you that if you were to play it within earshot of me, I’d likely start singing along. One thing I can say for certain is that there’s a crazy amount of genius in how ‘Seven Nation Army’ managed to replace ‘The Hey Song’ at professional sporting events. I tip my hat to Meg and Jack and everyone involved in the crafting of Elephant.
The Linda Lindas
“I love the White Stripes! ‘Seven Nation Army’ was one of the first rock songs I learned on the guitar and it’s still super fun to play. The song is primal and perfect and timeless, and the whole record sounds as cool as ever.”
“It’s hard to believe that Elephant is celebrating its 20th anniversary as The White Stripes are nominated to be in the class of 2023 for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There aren’t many female drummers out there and I remember Meg with the release of this album with her spot on minimalist drumming. She’s like a metronome behind Jack White’s innovative lead guitar playing and vocals. It’s not for ‘show’ – Meg’s playing in a way that enhances the song. Their style was something different on the punk scene. Everyone knows ‘Seven Nation Army’ and the song reflects the duo’s role for years to come. It’s recognizable with its steady bass and snare hits. It’s great to see women make an impact in the music community and start to be recognized for all that they do. Elephant is timeless, an album that can still be played today, 20 years later. That’s what makes a great album.”
“The White Stripes came out blasting with this album just at the time when the raw rock of the Northwest ‘90s was fading and music was morphing into hip-hop and pop dance was setting up its circus tent. Meg White and Jack White created an enormous new sound all their own. Elephant defied all the rules. It bravely flipped the bird with its naked garage sound. And it also flipped the bird with the edgy, home demo style that describes the delicate balance of the rarest deceptive simplicity. In the case of Elephant, it was the intentional imperfections that brought the perfection.”
Black Country, New Road
“It’s obviously a classic. Lots of great and catchy hooks – a really fun ride from start to finish. I’m listening to it again right now and really enjoying it. I would love to know why Jack White is holding a cricket bat on the cover. There was an article about it when I did a Google search but it required a subscription to access it. I guess some things are best left to the imagination. Either way he doesn’t look as cool on that album cover as he does on the album cover for Get Behind Me Satan.
My mum also said hi to Jack White at Chicago airport once in 2008 (the rest of the family were there but standing a bit further away), he probably doesn’t remember it but it was a pretty big deal for her.”
“In 2001 when I first heard of the White Stripes, I was on tour with Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols), Kirk Brandon (Theatre of Hate), and Pete Wylie (the Mighty Wah!), who went to see them at The Lomax in Liverpool. Despite the hype surrounding them, Pete was blown away and I became intrigued to start listening. To me, their sound was reminiscent of a similar two-piece drum and guitar band named House of Freaks (from Richmond Va.), who had opened for The Alarm back in 1989. The House of Freaks are one of modern rock’s great lost bands and when I first heard them, I knew music was about to change forever (which it did soon after). I got the same feeling when I heard the White Stripes and when I saw them live I was fascinated by the fact that there was no bass – which was just how The Alarm lined up back in the early ’80s (only we had three acoustic guitars plugged into amplifiers and a rudimentary drum kit). It all looked great, but we couldn’t work out how to capture the sound, and so one of us became a bass player. When I heard Jack White playing and producing, I knew instantly that he had worked out how to jump across the tracks and unite drums and guitar without the need for bass. The lyrics and songs were captivating and by the time they got to Elephant – and in particular ‘Seven Nation Army’ – it was a fully realized sonic assault forged through the use of the earliest musical advances with the application and attitude of modern times. The White Stripes are probably the last truly great rock and roll band in a traditional sense, a band who have distilled everything that went before them to create an outstanding noise that is unique in every single sense.”
“I was 16 years old when Elephant came out. It represented a massive seachange for my younger brother and me and our understanding of what a rock band needed to be ‘good.’ On Sept. 13, 2003, we went to the Greek Theater in Berkeley to see the White Stripes (I still have the ticket stub). We were so inspired by their performance that we stayed up all night afterward with our acoustic guitar and singular, orphan rack tom working out a bad cover version of ‘The Hardest Button to Button.’ By the time I was 18, I pretended not to like the White Stripes anymore and cited bands like the Stooges or the MC5 instead but, I couldn’t have found them without Elephant. A perfect collection of well-crafted garage-pop songs that saved legions of millennials from nu metal.”
“When Elephant arrived I was still a teen in London, enamored by the indie scene sweeping the city and enthralled by Jack and Meg’s ability to write monster anthems. ‘Seven Nation Army’ was everywhere and soundtracked my coming of age, from learning the riff in my bedroom to dancing to it in bars I was too young to be in.”
“In 2003, I had only been playing guitar for a couple of years, so all I was playing were the standard simple classic rock riffs. And so when this album came out, it was the perfect time for me to learn all of these songs, especially ‘Seven Nation Army’ and drive my family and friends nearly insane playing it over and over anytime I picked up the guitar. This was one of the albums from around that time that taught me to try and get a little more out there with my guitar tone. Just by trying to chase some of the overdrive sounds, like the intro on ‘Black Math,’ I eventually resigned to the fact that maybe I would need to try something other than plugging my guitar directly into a Fender Blues Junior. At some point, I learned more about Jack White’s guitar set-up and found and bought a cool looking no-name 1960s made in japan electric guitar at a pawn shop for like $100 thinking that when I got home I would have my unique sound that nobody else would ever be able to recreate – my new secret weapon. It sounded terrible and nothing worked right. I think the guitar is still in my parents’ basement, it’s sort of like a monument to my teenage White Stripes fandom.”
Grant Widmer and Ted Joyner
GW: “I remember the period right before Elephant came out. I was working for my college radio station at the time and there was a lot of anticipation around the record. My memory is that ‘Seven Nation Army’ was the lead single, and without seeing any video or anything, I heard the single and I took it as a coded message about how they were going to emphasize bass guitar as a big part of the record, as opposed to the White Blood Cells era which established them as a band without bass guitar. Elephant was the last memory I have of an era when bands could cultivate a real sense of mystery about themselves, and then slowly fill in the blanks with these discreet smoke signals in the music.”
TJ: “It’s still crazy to remember back to a time when you could go on believing that Jack and Meg were siblings, which I fully did for a while. I remember being so enamored with the sounds on White Blood Cells, that when Elephant arrived and the sibling narrative had dissolved, I honestly would have fully forgiven them for following up with something not as good. But then to watch them reappear, and with ‘Seven Nation Army,’ it was like…oh, so this is what it’s like to witness true rock deities take shape in real time.”
“So, aside from knowing a handful of these songs and remembering thinking the Michel Gondry video for ‘The Hardest Button to Button’ was cool first time I saw it, I honestly don’t have a huge connection to this record. BUT, I asked Chiara (partner + bassist) about it and she had this to say: ‘I remember every morning at the same time, sitting at the kitchen table with mom and dad having breakfast before school watching the psycho video of ‘Seven Nation Army’ popping up on MTV and loving it. Then, in 2006 that song became the unofficial soccer anthem for Italy and while I was experiencing the victory of what was (in my opinion) the best team Italy ever had, it was glorious to hear that song being screamed all over the country simultaneously while Italians were celebrating a big win. The streets of my city were flooding over that riff ‘po po po po po po.’ Many years later, I was standing next to Jack White at a festival and I was smiling at the 15 year old me thinking about it.'”
“I don’t remember this record coming out, I was around 11 at the time. I do remember hearing the song ‘Seven Nation Army’ on the radio a lot and loving it. I haven’t ever been too into full albums but when I got to high school a few years later I remember digging into the record and playing ‘In the Cold Cold Night’, ‘The Hardest Button to Button’, and ‘Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself’ over and over again. I remember hearing ‘In the Cold Cold Night’ and being blown away by the depth and simplicity of the song. I felt like it was the first time I had heard something modern reflecting the same energy and intention as early blues music. I loved that Meg’s voice was timid. It felt so real. I loved the repeating and spacious ascending and descending lick that carried the song and the primitive feeling bridge part. I still feel today it’s such a perfect recording. What a great song.”
“Before Mediocre, I was in a band called Tomato Soop (purposely spelled incorrectly because we were extremely punk rock). We signed up to play at the Fifth Grade Talent Show, and there was no other choice than to play our favorite song, ‘Seven Nation Army.’ That was our first and only gig, but it sparked a passion in my 11-year-old brain that persists today. Years later, my mom told me that parents were upset about us singing the lyrics ‘I’m bleeding right before the Lord’ in front of all their kids.”
“Elephant tastes like my Midwest upbringing, and was released when I was in my last year of college. At that time, I was deep in the music scenes of Kent and Akron, Oh. where most live music was played in local basements followed by all-night after-parties. ‘Little Acorns’ and ‘The Hardest Button to Button’ had heavy airplay at my house, which we had aptly named the “Horrible Drug House.” It was a time! Debauchery and romance went hand in hand, and Elephant is for me all beautiful, yet foggy memories of freaking out and making out. I loved this record and I still do.”
“I remember the first time hearing the album through. The opening bass line for ‘Seven Nation Army’ really hooked me, then coming in strong with a four on the floor I was ALL in. The album has a dynamic range that satisfied my teenage punk-rock angst while leading me into new but familiar territory musically. It was mind-blowing to me at the time to go from ‘Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine’; a psych-rock punk bop, straight into ‘It’s True That We Love One Another’; a quirky love song that gives a nod to Johnny and June Cash.”
Black Market Brass
“I was 12 when Elephant came out. That summer I bought it on the iTunes Store and burned it to a disc. One weekend night, a few friends and I were hanging out and their dad put a Robert Johnson CD on for us. One of them pulled out a ouija board and we started ‘communicating with the beyond.’ I remember the terror as one of my friends asked, ‘When will I die?’ Our little minds couldn’t handle it and I remember staying up in bed all night listening to Elephant on my Walkman. That night was like a baptism in the blues and rock and roll. It was probably my first existential crisis and that record melted my convictions.”
“I saved up my pocket money to buy it on CD. Elephant tore through the speakers in the UK. It feels to me like real raw 1970s British punk and grunge had been strained with a stiff helping of the darkest country blues…. it was all churned up with a ferocity and elegance I’d never heard before. All the gut punch rock n’ roll on the record is tamed by an intimacy and sweetness I’d never heard before on record before that point in time.” –
“The raw unpolished rocking aesthetic of Elephant with screaming guitars, odd breakdowns and tempo changes, and unapologetic lyrics cut through everything else at the time. You couldn’t help but respect it and rock along. It was bare and honest with a unique sound, especially Jack’s approach to songwriting and melodies. Garage punk blues rock galore! I remember not being able to escape ‘Seven Nation Army’ shortly after it was released in 2003. It was playing everywhere! It’s one of those songs where every part is a hook that sticks in your head forever, especially that bass line. Being primarily a bass player myself, it was awesome to see a song with such a memorable singable melodic bass line become so massive.”
“I saw The White Stripes at the Echo Lounge, in east Atlanta back in 2002 playing for a couple hundred folks and loved the raw rock n roll they played. It’s always been my favorite time to see a group, right as they’re on the cusp. Already superstars, but waiting on the rest of the world to catch up. They came back shortly after the release of the mammoth Elephant album. The riff of ‘Seven Nation Army’ was so huge and everywhere. They went from a couple hundred at the Echo Lounge to 10k at Stone Mountain Park near Atlanta.”
Too Much Joy
“When I was overseeing listen.com’s editorial department in 2001, we had the White Stripes play our SXSW day party. This was just before White Blood Cells came out, so still a couple years before their huge breakthrough with Elephant, but they were already a major buzz band and made our party the must-get-in event that particular year. I remember our CEO standing next to me at the back of Fat Tuesday’s courtyard, which was packed, as the band smoked and the crowd went apeshit. The CEO said, ‘OK, I officially don’t get it,’ and I told him, ‘You don’t have to. That’s what your editorial team is for. You can just think of them like a stock that we bought low and are selling high.’ I like to think that by the time Elephant came out, even that CEO finally got it, because the riff that opens ‘Seven Nation Army,’ and therefore the album, is just so undeniable. It’s just seven simple notes, but everything about the White Stripes is deceptively simple: if anyone could do it, how come nobody else has managed? There’s a reason they’re still playing that song in sports arenas.”
“Like many musicians, The White Stripes have been an inspiration and a beacon of hope to many working-class musicians. I grew up about an hour south of Detroit, but was too young to drive up and see a show. I would instead be blasting “Seven Nation Army” on my Discman while riding my bike or mime guitaring to a song in the mirror. At the time there were a few bands in the area making some moves like this, including The Black Keys. There is something about Elephant that was immediately accessible. It sounded like something familiar, yet at the same time felt fresh, fun, raw, with a hint of darkness. I think a huge amount of the energy from that record can be accredited to the drumming of Meg White. Her style of playing somewhat simple beats or only what needed to be played. I have tried as hard as I can to adopt this style in some way, sometimes annoying the shit out of busy or highly proficient drummers. I think it’s a testament that music is not about how complex or busy it is, but how it moves you and makes you feel. The White Stripes captured that feeling in this record, that sometimes less (while it has its downfalls and limitations at times) can be more ear-catching.” –
Miranda and the Beat
“There are a few moments when I distinctly remember hearing something that changed my life and gave me the excited feeling and sureness that I wanted to live and die by rock and roll. Those moments were the first time I heard Wu Tang Clan, Dead Moon, and The White Stripes. I remember sitting in band class in the sixth grade and hearing someone pick out ‘Seven Nation Army’ on the piano. My ears perked up and I asked the girl what it was. She said it’s The White Stripes! I went straight home and looked them up and I was instantly thrust into a whole new world of rock n roll, garage and soul, all of which are firmly embedded in my musical DNA to this day. I am still, and probably always will be trying to write a riff as sick as “‘The Hardest Button to Button.'” –
“The White Stripes proved to me that limitations were an advantage. You can get it done with minimal instrumentation and production. Elephant shed light on the power of lo-fi and not playing by the rules of a studio. It’s some of the most human-sounding music out there, full of unhinged flaws and ramshackle moments. I believe the more ‘human’ music sounds, the better it will hold up with time. With studio tech now available to everyone on their computer, it’s very easy to make perfect-sounding music. I have trouble finding excitement in glossy, shiny music.”
“My perception of The White Stripes from the start was that they were a scrappy, bluesy two-piece with an indie feel. You know, one of those bands that your friends get together and bring the rock at house parties. There was no question that Jack White had great guitar chops and crafty songs and they appealed to me because of their low-fi garage sound. The stripped down blues vibe had kind of an indie polish on it that made them stand out from the million other 12-bar blues riff rock bands. When I first heard Elephant my perception was altered. The songs connected on way deeper levels. I mean, ‘Seven Nation Army’ is one badass song to open a record with, I was into it immediately. So much so that I went to Lou’s Records in Encinitas and bought the album after hearing the single over the store PA in Vons. I had a shitty Hyundai Excel with a CD player that barely worked, but when I put the Elephant disc in, it played right away. Then, I couldn’t eject it ever again. The CD player refused to relinquish the disc so I ended up listening to it for the next two years, consecutively. Wherever that car is now, I wouldn’t be surprised if that disc is still in there. So it’s safe to say that the album is a part of me and I have a deep and ongoing affection for it. The whole record is stellar, but I will say, ‘No Home For You Here’ is my favorite track. It’s great driving music.”
“I was in college when Elephant came out. I grew up listening to and playing blues and wanted to write songs fusing blues and grunge. Hearing the raw garage vibes on Elephant blew my mind and opened me up to all kinds of directions songwriting could take. My friends and I saw The White Stripes play in Austria around the time the record came out. It was a life-changing show.”
“I’d already been listening to the blues when I found the White Stripes. I was listening to artists like Son House, Muddy Waters, Blind Willie Johnson and a lot of that stripped-down stuff. And when I first came across Jack and Meg White, I heard that sound, too. That’s what first drew me into the band. Elephant came out when I was in 8th grade, so I found the record much later, in my late teens. That simplicity, was not only beautiful, but it was powerful. I loved the vulnerability of the garage rock music they made. And that it was just two people was incredible. A few years later, my twin brother Cedric wanted to learn drums so he could back me up. And I knew if I was to start a rock and roll band with him, which we did, I knew I wanted it to be something like the White Stripes. The blues sound plus rock and roll—they fucking nailed it.”
“By the mid-2000’s, I had spent years acutely threatened by the immensity and ubiquity of Jack White. I was a young Indian rocker living in L.A., doing my best to maintain misfit status and avoid any awareness of the monolithic presence of the White Stripes, but was secretly wondering when I too was going to get my chance to sell my soul to the devil in exchange for ‘the power.’ Elephant had me convinced that White had inked the deal. The first time I heard the album, I was on tour somewhere in Texas, waking up from sleeping on a bench in the back of a van and that slide guitar on ‘Seven Nation Army’ pricked my brain like a thousand needles. I remember being so blown away by how incredible it sounded. At the time, I thought no one else my age knew ‘2+2 = ?’ by the Bob Seger System, but there it was – a direct line connecting to it in a modern way. The ensuing jealousy almost paralyzed me but then I realized that I wasn’t from Detroit and he was, it was in his blood. Mine would be a different calling. Sometime in 2004, I finally saw them in the pouring rain in Spain and it all came together for me. Jack, wearing those weird split color carny pants playing his acoustic through an octave pedal and fuzz to get that earworm Troggs/Monks bass sound and Meg’s cold disaffection and certainly icky thump on her kick drum pounding my skull into oblivion. I saw ‘Seven Nation Army’ just rip everyone there wide open. Every song killed. I was so high on hash and they were so good and so on fire that the phenomena was undeniable. It was one of the most transcendent shows I’ve experienced. I went in a staunch denier and came out a convert.
In my mind, no one in our modern musical landscape has been able to distill the alchemical properties of Jimmy Page’s guitar playing the way White did on Elephant without coming across like a hack replicator, but more like an unwitting neophyte who just happened to intersect at the same crossroads. I eventually came to understand his style as unhinged and savant, with Meg balancing out all the bluesy riffage and reining him in with her pulse and pull
toward the minimal.
For me, Elephant fused the mythos of Elvis, Son House etc, the Stooges’ Raw Power, Led Zeppelin III, the best Kinks demos and the VU’s ‘Afterhours’ all into its own thing. It had the searing songs: ‘Seven Nation Army’ (one of only a few truly anthemic choruses that have NO words, how the fuck do you write something that heralds its destiny and then manages to replace Gary Glitter at the stadiums?), ‘Black Math,’ ‘There’s No Home For You Here,’ The Hardest Button To Button.’ It had some of the tenderness of a songwriter’s record with the rolling thunder of ‘I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart’ and the beautifully fragile ‘You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket.’
No gimmicks on it, just pure love and belief in what they were doing.”